Local county officials held the first of several budget work sessions last week, where they met with various department heads to talk about the upcoming financial year.
The work session opened in somewhat disappointing fashion when County Manager Don Norton said that he's gotten word from the Tax Assessor's office that there will be no net increase in the 2005 tax digest. That means that the county can't count on an increase in property tax revenue and will likely need to be more frugal in preparing the budget.
"Our revenue stream is virtually flat," said Mr. Norton.
So later in the meeting when County Fire Chief Bruce Tanner asked commissioners for approximately $138,000 to staff Station One on a 24-hour basis, it was met with reluctance.
"I see the value of the fire protection and I understand, I'm just looking at the volunteers who've done a good job for a lot of years," said Commission Chairman Charlie Newton.
The request proved to be timely, as several weeks ago volunteers at Station One took 15 minutes to respond to a fire on Salem Road. While Chief Tanner called the response time "good," he did say that improvements could be made by making the station a full-time operation rather than run by volunteers.
"Had there been someone on that station to staff that station (two weeks ago), we would have had someone there in maybe five minutes," he said.
He continued that if Station One was manned 24 hours a day, 63 percent of the county would be in the range for an "immediate" response given that Station Two was outfitted with a 24-hour staff last year.
Chief Tanner said the upgrade from a volunteer-only staff was a good move.
"Our response times from Station Two have tremendously improved. We used to have about 12-15 minute response times and are now down to five to eight minutes, and that is very significant when you talk about a burning building," he said. "Station One is our busiest and covers a very important part of McDuffie County. We feel that additional money spent would be very cost effective considering the benefits."
The response from the commission was lukewarm. Mr. Newton emphasized fiscal restraint when he brought up the fact that the fire department budget has risen steadily over the past few years.
"We've gone from $90,000 to $400,000 since I've been here. I think that the current commission has put a whole lot more importance on that department than ever put on it in the past. At some point you've got to say, 'We've gone from $100,000 to $400,000 and we're still a 23,000 person county. Let's slow down a little bit.'"
Chief Tanner responded: "We're going to get what we pay for; it's that simple."
When it was the Planning Director Fred Guerrant's turn in front of the commission, he again brought up the topic of business licenses. County commissioners had explored the idea of instituting a voluntary license program earlier this year, but backed off after they learned of a state law that mandated that such a program could only be done to generate revenue.
Mr. Guerrant, however, reiterated his belief that now is the time for a business license program, and that it be mandatory instead of voluntary.
"It's just come to that day and time. In all honesty, this is not 1956 anymore," he said. "I think it is expeditious of us administratively and financially to get into this."
But commissioners showed reluctance, clearly uneasy about the prospect of levying what could amount to be a tax on the business owners of McDuffie County. Mr. Guerrant said that he's had numerous requests for such a program from local business owners who said their businesses are at a disadvantage without a business license. The plan would net around $20,000 in its first year for the county, with that number increasing in subsequent years after some of the startup fees are paid.
The second budget work session will be held tonight, where McDuffie Regional Medical Center officials are set to ask for $525,000 in indigent care funding. A few months ago commissioners gave the hospital an advance of $508,000 of sales tax money to help offset an ongoing funding crisis, but Mr. Norton didn't seem surprised by the most recent requests for funds.
"The SPLOST money was, at best, some sort of stop gap. That helps, but it doesn't solve the problem."